Friday, 9 June 2023

Lost in Space (TV tie-in novel)

Lost in Space by Dave van Arnam and Ron Archer is as its name suggests a TV tie-in novel inspired by the classic TV series.

One intriguing thing about TV tie-in novels is that some are very close in spirit to the TV series while others are quite different. Some were commissioned at a time when only one or two episodes had gone to air. The novels sometimes reflected the original concept for the series, rather than the way the series actually turned out.

In this case the series premiered in 1965 and the novel was published in 1967 so I can only assume that the reason it differs so radically from the series is that it was a conscious decision on the part of the writers.

It is however worth observing at this point that Lost in Space was not conceived of as a silly goofy kids’ show. If you watch the pilot episode (No Place to Hide) or, even more to the point, the first few episodes of season one then it is plausible that the authors of the novel decided to make that very early version of the series the basis for their novel.

It’s obvious that the authors were attempting to write not just serious science fiction, but Big Ideas science fiction.

Some of the characters also differ markedly from their television counterparts. Especially Dr Smith. The Dr Smith of the novel is a serious scientist and he’s not the least bit lazy. He’s also not especially treacherous. He’s not even all that cowardly. He does have some megalomaniacal tendencies, which the TV version of the character doesn’t really have, at least not to anywhere near the same extent.

The authors also decided that the Robot would be groping towards acquiring independent decision-making abilities, which is certainly not the case in the TV version.

It’s also obvious that the only characters in whom the authors are interested are Dr Smith and Professor Robinson, and to a much lesser extent Don West and the Robot. Maureen Robinson becomes a very minor character. Will, Penny and Judy are even more minor characters. I suspect that the authors marginalised Will and Penny because they didn’t want to be seen as writing a science fiction novel for kids.

There is some of the familiar verbal sparing between Dr Smith and the Robot but the relationship between the two is overall quite different. In the novel the Robot’s function is not to provide comic relief. The relationship between Professor Robinson and Dr Smith is very different.

One positive thing about the novel is that it takes advantage of a huge advantage that novels have over TV series - the ability to operate on a truly epic scale. The novel takes the form of a series of three linked short stories and not one of those stories could have been attempted with a 1960s television budget.

In the first story the crew of the Jupiter II find a city that seems to have been home to an advanced civilisation but the planet is now deserted. Deserted, apart from a large number of robots and a central computer, all of which are dedicated to maintaining the city for the benefit of its non-existent inhabitants. The first mystery to be solve is obviously the lack of living inhabitants. There’s a second mystery - the central computer is hiding something very important and appears to be hopelessly conflicted over its own deceptions. It is now neurotic and guilt-ridden.

In the second story our spacefarers find a planet which is home to intelligent life, but it seems to take the form of a kind of hive mind.

The third story is even more ambitious. Our space adventurers find a vast city which turns out to be rather old. Billions of years old. And the history of this planet is somehow intertwined with Earth’s history and its destiny may be linked to Earth’s as well.

And Dr Smith believes he has finally gained what he aways wanted - the power to be a galactic emperor. Of course he’ll need an empress, and he feels that Judy Robinson would be an ideal choice. The prospect of marriage between Dr Smith and Judy is certainly something you wouldn’t have seen in the TV series,

If you’re looking for a novel that captures the feel of the TV series then you’re going to be pretty disappointed. About the only things it really has in common with the series are the names of the characters and the name of the spaceship. If that bothers you then you definitely should avoid the novel.

If you approach it merely as a science fiction novel then it’s not too bad. It grapples with big ideas with reasonable success. If you’re content with that then it’s not a bad read.

So I can’t really say whether I recommend it or not - it depends so much on what you’re looking for.

I’ve mentioned the origins of the series. I’ve reviewed the pilot episode Lost in Space - No Place to Hide and the first few episodes of the first season and they’re very much worth seeing as a glimpse of what the TV series could have been like.

Thursday, 25 May 2023

The Professionals season 3 (1979)

The mid-70s witnessed a revolution in British television. It started with seasons three and four of Special Branch but the series most associated with this revolution was The Sweeney. Shooting on video in the studio was out. Everything had to be shot on location, on 35mm film. The emphasis henceforward was on action, which usually meant violent action. Brian Clemens was not unaware of this trend and had taken his first tentative steps in this new direction with The New Avengers. For his next project Clemens decided to go all-out. He would out-Sweeney The Sweeney. That new project would become The Professionals.

The Professionals certainly attracted attention. And outrage. It wasn’t just the violence. It’s a series about a British counter-terrorist counter-espionage squad, CI5, that quite openly flouts the law.

The Professionals was made in five separate production blocks between 1977 and 1983 and screened as five seasons over the same period, but the production blocks and the seasons do not coincide at all. There was no attempt to screen the episodes in the order in which they were made. The 1979 third season is a mixture of episodes from the second and third production blocks.

The cast remained unchanged from season two - Gordon Jackson as CIA chief George Cowley with Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw as Bodie and Doyle, his two top agents. The characterisations haven’t changed either. Cowley is as ruthless as ever with a fine disregard for everything except getting the job done. Ex-mercenary Bodie is pretty much an ice-cold killer, although with a sense of humour. Doyle is equally tough but more sensitive, and is the only one of the trio with what you might call a fully developed conscience.

The stories haven’t changed a great deal either. CI5 battles spies and international criminals but their main focus is combating terrorism.

There’s enough action and mayhem to ensure that the viewer will overlook any deficiencies in the scripts. And for the most part the scripts are solid and tight.

The Professionals
was intended as pure high-octane entertainment so don’t expect any philosophical musing or too much in the way of subtlety. On occasions the series does confront ethical issues but this is not Callan, or even Danger Man. If you’re looking for a series that offers provocative intellectual insights into the morality of espionage this is not that series. The Professionals offers car chases, gun battles and explosions.

But the action is handled with style and energy.

Episode Guide

The Purging of CI5 was a logical enough choice for a season opener, with lots of action, lots of explosions and lots of excitement. Someone is trying to destroy CI5. Their plan seems to be to kill every last CI5 agent, including Cowley. And they seem quite capable of doing so.

This episode is quite reminiscent of the excellent 1969 Callan episode Let's Kill Everybody. In fact the premise is more or less identical. It’s not a bad episode.

In Backtrack CI5 have to stop an arms smuggling operation. They have a witness who might be useful, if they can keep him alive. They have to follow the trail of evidence back to a burglary. That burglar found something crucial. Bodie and Dole have to try out their own skills as burglars.

A typical but very entertaining episode with Cowley being particularly ruthless.

starts with a British agent who has just escaped from the Khmer Rough. He has some interesting information about a high-level defector. Of course there are twists. A solid enough plot.

In this episode there’s plenty of focus on the tense relationship between Cowley on the one hand and Bodie and Doyle on the other. They feel that Cowley is concealing vital information from them, forcing them to work in the dark. And they’re right. And they resent it, understandably. One of the best episodes of the season.

Dead Reckoning starts with an exchange of agents by the British and the Bulgarians. The British got double-agent Stefan Batak as their part of the deal. The arrangement was that the deal was to be kept secret. There is a complication - Batak’s daughter Anna who lives in London. She was all set to go to Bulgaria to visit her father in prison.

There are the usual betrayals and counter-betrayals and complex plot twists. Cowley is getting plenty of information out of Batak. He thinks the information is accurate, but he still isn’t certain. And then disaster strikes. Could Anna be an assassin? Or is she an innocent pawn?

Doyle takes some film and somebody is very keen to take it away from him. The trouble is that the film doesn’t show anything that could possibly be useful.

A nicely cynical twisted spy thriller plot. A very good episode.

The Madness of Mickey Hamilton starts with an attempted political assassination but the viewer already has reason to suspect that something else is going on. CI5 however are sure it was an attempt to kill an African diplomat. If they’d realised earlier that were barking up the wrong tree disaster might have been averted, but that the theme of this episode - by the time anyone realises there’s a problem it’s too late.

A good episode with Doyle showing an unexpected touch of compassion. To everybody else the villain in this story is just a villain, but to Doyle’s he’s a victim.

A Hiding to Nothing involves the possibility of an assassination attempt on an Arab leader. And CI5 has a leak. There are lots of twists to come.

Again we see a subtle difference between Bodie and Doyle, with Doyle being just as tough but with more of a human side. Excellent episode.

In Runner a gun shop is robbed. Robbed of a variety of very nasty weaponry. CI5 assume it’s the prelude to a major campaign of violence, a campaign of political violence by an outfit referred to as the Organisation (presumably some offshoot of the IRA).

CI5 are being manipulated and Doyle is being manipulated. The Organisation is being manipulated. There’s a dangerous game being played, and the motivations are not clear. CI5 have to find out what those motivations are. They have a number of sources of possible information but those sources are not exactly friendly. A solid episode with a fiendishly complicated plot. Maybe too complicated. You’ll have to concentrate.

In the season finale Servant of Two Masters Bodie and Doyle have to investigate a possible traitor - George Cowley. This is by far the weakest episode of the season. You have to take seriously the idea that Cowley might be corrupt, and I don’t believe that a single viewer would have bought that for a second. If you don’t buy it the story becomes boringly predictable.

Final Thoughts

Overall a strong season with the season finale being the only dud episode. Other than that there’s plenty of excitement and mindless violence. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Thriller - three 1973 epidodes

A look at three episodes from Brian Clemens’ horror anthology series Thriller, one of the finest series of its type ever made. All three episodes originally aired in 1973.

The Colour of Blood

The Colour of Blood is the fifth episode of the first season of Thriller. Brian Clemens wrote the script, Robert Tronson directed.

The Carnation Killer, a crazed sex murderer who has killed at least nine women, has been caught. He has been found guilty but insane and he is now on his way to a hospital for the criminally insane. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately Arthur Page (for that is the Carnation Killer’s real name) never reaches the hospital. The prison van crashes and Page escapes.

Page hopes to lose himself in the crowds at Waterloo Station. But first he must have a red carnation for his button hole. He simply doesn’t feel dressed without it.

He is rather surprised when a young blonde woman carrying an attache case suddenly latches onto him. As luck (in this case bad luck) would have it Julie Marsh is waiting to meet a man she has never set eyes on.

A man named Graham has inherited a large sum of money and a house in the country. Julie’s job is to meet Graham at Waterloo Station, hand over the money and then take him by train to Westerling (the house he has inherited). Julie will recognise Graham by the red carnation in his button-hole.

It’s just very bad luck for Julie that the first man she sees with a red carnation is not Mr Graham, it’s Arthur Page the insane sex murderer. Page might be insane but he can also be very charming and appear very normal, and Julie has no idea that she’s chosen the wrong man and that she’s about to take him out into the country to a very isolated house where she’s going to be quite alone with him.

But there are some major plot twists that are about to kick in and take the story in a rather different direction. There are nasty surprises in store for just about everyone.

Norman Eshley’s chilling performance as Page is what stands out most in this episode. It’s a neat little script, which relies a little on coincidence but the coincidences are entirely plausible. There’s some effective suspense and some creepy moments. All in all an excellent episode.

Murder in Mind

Murder in Mind was scripted by Terence Feely from a story by Brian Clemens. It was directed by Alan Gibson and was broadcast in May 1973.

It starts with a murder that isn’t.

Tom Patterson (Donald Gee) has held the very humble rank of Detective-Constable for all of a week. Like any keen young copper he dreams of solving a major case. And then a major case seems to drop into his lap. A woman wanders into the police station in the middle of the night and confesses to a murder. Since he’s the only detective on duty it’s Tom Patterson’s case.

But it ends disappointingly. Betty Drew (Zena Walker) had had a blow on the head and her confession was all nonsense.

There’s something about the case that keeps niggling at Tom Patterson. He’s not sure what it is but he feels that there’s some connection he should have made but he didn’t and nobody else did either. There wasn’t any murder and it was all Betty Drew’s imagination and it would be better for Tom to forget all about it. But Tom still feels that there is a puzzle here somewhere.

Brian Clemens has come up with a very intricate script this time. There’s a perfectly straightforward explanation for what has happened, the straightforward explanation being that Betty was concussed and confused and imagined a murder that never happened. Everybody accepts the straightforward explanation, apart from Tom. And of course the viewer is likely to agree with Tom - that there is an alternative explanation. But it requires the pieces of the jigsaw to be pieced together in a different way. The alternative explanation is convoluted but it’s clever and it’s plausible.

But if Tom is right then there might be a murder after all.

The acting is solid but for me the highlight is Ronald Radd’s performance as Superintendent Terson. Good episode.

A Place to Die

A Place to Die was scripted by Terence Feely from a story by Brian Clemens. It was directed by Peter Jefferies and went to air in May 1973.

It’s a basic story that has been done countless times and i’s an idea that was very popular at the time - a remote community that seems perfectly normal but in fact follows either paganism or satanism. To be fair, in 1973 the idea was still reasonably fresh.

It’s also another story of innocent city folk who foolishly move to a rural area only to find themselves in a nightmare world of primitive superstition and terror.

Dr Bruce Nelson (Bryan Marshall) has just taken over a practice in a small village. He and his American wife Tessa (Alexandra Hay) are looking forward to getting away from the stresses of city life.

The first sign that something odd is going on comes when they meet their seriously weird housekeeper Beth. Beth reacts with wonder when she sees Tessa. She excitedly informs the other villagers that Tessa is moon-pale and moon-gold and limps with her left leg. The villagers know what that means. Tessa is the Expected One. And it’s almost Lady Day, and this year Lady Day coincides with a full moon. The signs are clear.

What is going on is obvious to the viewer very early on, we know what Bruce and Tessa have wandered into, but they have no idea. That of course sets up the suspense very nicely. The viewer doesn’t know how Bruce and Tessa are going to get out of a terrifying situation. Another fine episode.

Final Thoughts

Three more very solid Thriller episodes. All worth watching.

Sunday, 9 April 2023

Patrick Macnee's Dead Duck (Avengers tie-in novel)

Dead Duck is an original novel inspired by the TV series The Avengers. It was published in 1966 and written by Patrick Macnee. At least Macnee’s name appears on the cover as the author. Of course he didn’t write it. The book seems to have been written by Peter Leslie who wrote some very decent TV tie-in novels. It is just within the bounds of possibility that Macnee may have had some slight input into the book.

Dead Duck was actually the second Avengers novel credited to Macnee, the first being Deadline in 1965.

Steed takes Mrs Peel to lunch, to a very swish French restaurant. He has told her that the duck is divine. One of the other customers would tend to disagree -he has a couple of bites of his duck and keels over dead.

It seems to have been a heart attack. For some reason Steed is suspicious (he sees a man handing over a package to a girl just after the unfortunate diner’s demise) and does some checking. There have been rather a lot of deaths from heart attacks in this part of East Anglia recently. A lot more than one would normally expect.

The victims all have one thing in common. They have all recently eaten, and all have eaten duck.

The story feels like an Avengers yarn. There’s a poacher. With a beautiful daughter who tends to point guns at people. There are two odd old men conducting research - on birds. There’s an old house surrounded by elaborate but oddly childish booby-traps.

Steed and Mrs Peel go both undercover, Steed as a journalist and Emma as a housemaid.

The story gets more Avengers-like. Steed engages in a life-or-death struggle with a bird. There’s mention of a sinister but mysterious character named Worthington whom nobody sees. There’s a South American connection. And there’s a horrifying conspiracy involving, naturally, birds.

There are two villains and they’re fine Avengers villains.

Steed finds that his gadget-loaded umbrella comes in very handy indeed. Not to mention his armoured bowler hat.

The tone strikes the right mock-serious note. And Steed’s plan to unmask the conspiracy is absurdly far-fetched but amusing.

And there are the right touches of Avengers surrealism.

A good TV tie-in novel has to get the characters right. They have to be convincing as the characters from the TV series. This novel certainly gets Steed right. It gets Mrs Peel right in terms of personality but she’s not quite as much of an action heroine as she is in the TV series. She doesn’t get sufficient opportunities to strut her stuff and demonstrate her prowess in unarmed combat.

There’s some of the witty repartee between Steed and Mrs Peel that you expect, but perhaps not quite enough.

These are minor quibbles. It’s an engagingly offbeat story with a fine crazy finale. Fans of the TV series should enjoy this novel. Recommended.

The only other Avengers novel I’ve read is a later one, Keith Laumer’s The Drowned Queen (which features Tara King), and it was quite good.

Peter Leslie also wrote a couple of the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels.

Friday, 24 March 2023

Nigel Kneale's Beasts (1976)

Beasts is a six-part 1976 British horror anthology TV series made by ATV and created and written by Nigel Kneale. Kneale is best known for his 1950s Quatermass sci-fi/horror TV serials which were later adapted to film by Hammer, with great success although Kneale wasn’t happy with the Hammer versions. Kneale later wrote some very strange, disturbing but fascinating TV plays such as The Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape (both of which I highly recommend).

Kneale had a knack for mixing horror with science fiction in a genuinely original and surprising manner.

Beasts is typical of Kneale's work in that you’re never quite sure if there’s a supernatural element of if the stories are science fiction. Or they might possibly be merely the products of overheated imaginations.

The episodes

Baby is an exercise in folk horror. Peter Gilkes (Simon MacCorkindale) and his wife Jo (Jane Wymark) have just moved to the country. Peter was tired of being a city vet. He wanted to be a real country vet. Jo is a country girl but oddly she seems less happy about the movie. Maybe she’ll feel better when their very rundown cottage is fixed up a bit. Jo is pregnant and she’s anxious since she had a miscarriage a year earlier. Jo’s anxiety will play an important part in the story.

While tearing down a wall Peter and Jo find a huge earthenware jar. It contains a mummified - something. Peter is a vet but he has no idea what it is, although he finds it fascinating. Jo is totally creeped out by it.

Jo hears all sorts of tales, some of which may be true and some of which may be folklore. The tales concern the piece of land on which the cottage stands, and the reason nobody farms this land. She also discovers an interesting fact about the previous tenants. They had no children. This seems significant to Jo.

Jo hears strange noises and sees a few things that disturb her. Her anxiety grows. Nobody takes her fears seriously. The viewer will also wonder just how seriously to take her fears. Most of the things she sees and hears could be described as ambiguous. To find out whether Jo’s fears really are justified you’ll have to watch the episode. Good episode.

Buddyboy is wildly original and quirky. Dave (Martin Shaw) is thinking of buying a broken-down dolphinarium. Not for the dolphins. The dolphins are long gone. Dave wants to turn the place into a cinema to show adult films. That’s the business Dave is in. He already owns an adult cinema. Converting this place into a cinema will be easy because a cinema is what it originally was, before it was turned into a dolphinarium.

The guy selling the place, Hubbard (Wolfe Morris), seems extraordinarily jumpy and anxious to sell. He keeps talking about all the trouble he had with Buddyboy, his star dolphin. Buddyboy was a great performer but difficult to handle.

There’s a strange girl, Lucy (Pamela Moiseiwitsch) who is always hanging around the dolphinarium. She’s obsessed with Buddyboy as well. She thought he was the most wonderful animal that ever lived.

Dave is strangely drawn to the odd waif-like Lucy and they gradually become involved. Then there’s the ending (and I have no intention of revealing any spoilers here) which exasperates a lot of people. They feel cheated because there is no obvious supernatural element and they resort to prosaic interpretations which I feel are probably wrong.

My feeling is that Kneale really wants us to think about this one. There are plausible and satisfying explanations but you have to tease them out and you have to think about what you’ve seen and you have to think about both Lucy and Buddyboy. It’s not that there’s no strangeness here, but it’s not the obvious strangeness people expect from straightforward horror. This episode made me think long and hard about what it could mean, and I think that actually makes it great television.

The Dummy is another indication of the unconventionality of Kneale’s approach. Clyde Boyd (Bernard Horsfall) is an actor falling apart. His last chance is to play the monster known as the Dummy in yet another low-budget horror flick. The trouble really starts when he spots Peter Wager (Simon Oates) in the studio. Wager is the man who stole Boyd’s wife. Boyd falls apart completely but this shooting has to go ahead and harassed producer 'Bunny' Nettleton (Clive Swift) manages to convince Boyd to complete the scene. The result is mayhem, the police have to be called, there’s a dead man lying on the studio floor and Wager is running around with a shotgun threatening to shoot Boyd.

The clue to what has happened is provided by journalist Joan Eastgate (Lillias Walker) who is on set hoping to interview Boyd. She talks about tribesmen who wear masks in religious ceremonies and how it’s the mask that ends up wearing the man rather than the other way around. That’s more or less what happens here. Boyd’s whole personality disintegrates and he becomes the monster, the Dummy. It’s not just his money problems and his wife leaving him, he also has to face the failure of his career as an actor. The only successful roles he’s ever had having been playing the Dummy, playing the entire part encased in a rubber suit. The Dummy is more real than he is.

It’s great to see Clive Swift in a complex ambiguous part and doing it extremely well. Thorley Walters adds fun as the pompous but rather ridiculous Shakepearian actor turning up for a day’s work and a pay cheque.

This is a serious and tragic story. Don’t be misled by the silliness of the monster costume. That was probably a swipe by Nigel Kneale at Doctor Who, a TV series he despised.

Special Offer is a horror story set in a small supermarket. Noreen (Pauline Quirke) is a socially awkward clumsy teenager who seems to make a mess of everything she does, whether it’s packing shelves or working the checkouts. Accidents seem to happen around her. The story manager, the slimy Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman), is exasperated with her. Even worse, Noreen has a crush on him, while Grimley is pursuing the other checkout operator, glamorous dolly bird Linda. Noreen claims it’s an animal causing all the trouble. A small furry animal that looks quite a bit like the company’s cartoon mascot, Briteway Billy.

Nobody believes her but then things start happening that can’t be blamed on her, and the other staff members can hear a small animal scuttling about in the store. Mr Grimley is out of his depth and calls on the grocery chain’s personnel manager, Mr Liversedge (Wensley Pithey), for help. Mr Liversedge thinks they’re dealing with something akin to a poltergeist although in this case it’s more a paranormal than a supernatural phenomenon. He thinks Noreen is unconsciously making these things happen.

This episode starts out rather whimsically although with an edge of pathos. Very gradually the mood shifts to become more menacing. The terror when it comes is still mixed with whimsy which gives the story an interesting flavour. I like the idea of a small supermarket as a setting for horror, with tins of baked beans and boxes of cereal used as engines of destruction. And of course Mr Liversedge’s theory is that the terror’s starting point is Noreen’s hopeless love for Mr Grimley. 17-year-old Pauline Quirke’s performance is extraordinarily good, subtle but emotionally powerful. Quite a good episode.

What Big Eyes
begins with a young over-keen RSPCA inspector becoming convinced that an animal trader is up to something shady. He finds it hard to believe that three timber wolves would really have ended up in a tiny pet shop. He discovers that the pet shop’s owner, an elderly eccentric would-be scientist named Leo Raymount (Patrick Magee), really did obtain those wolves. But why? The answer has to do with Raymount’s bizarre theories about lycanthropy. Weird but oddly moving episode.

In During Barty's Party a middle-aged woman is worried that there may be a rat in the cellar. Possibly two rats. Her husband isn’t too worried at first - his wife is rather nervous. Then it becomes obvious that there are more than two rats. A lot more. His wife is even more worried. She thinks these rats are not just ordinary rats. She thinks they have evolved much greater intelligence.

This is a standard “what if nature turned against us” story, although it’s well executed. This is the least weird episode and for that reason I find it the least interesting.

Final Thoughts

Beasts is Kneale pushing the boundaries of the genre and giving us monster stories that defy all our expectations about monster stories. A strange offbeat unsettling series. Highly recommended.

Beasts is available on DVD from Network.

Friday, 3 March 2023

The Avengers, four early Mrs Gale episodes

Some early Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers, from late 1962 and early 1963. They feature what I call Steed Mark 2. Steed Mark 1, seen in the one or two surviving first season episodes, is a rather nasty piece of work with an edge of sadism to his character. He’s a spy, espionage is a dirty game and he plays it dirty. With the second season and the introduction of two female co-stars (Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Julie Stevens as Venus Smith were intended to appear in alternate episodes) the personality of Steed changed somewhat. He became more charming and there was plenty of witty banter with his female co-stars. Steed was still far more ruthless and manipulative than the Steed Mark 3 most people are accustomed to from the Emma Peel era but he was ruthless and manipulative in a charming way.

Steed would continue to evolve, gradually becoming a dandy with a love for vintage cars and the finer things of life. Interestingly enough he does not yet have his Bentley. In Traitor in Zebra he drives a very nice 1930s Lagonda.

He would also slowly become more obviously upper-class, more obviously a polished well-educated gentleman, albeit one with very few moral scruples.

Initially no-one was quite sure how Honor Blackman was to play Cathy Gale. The idea of having an expert in unarmed combat with a penchant for black leather emerged gradually during the first Cathy Gale season (May 1962 to March 1963).

The relationship between Steed and Mrs Gale was exceptionally interesting. She doesn’t really trust him completely, and with good reason. He manipulates her and he sometimes neglects to tell her things that she really is entitled to know.

The reason The Avengers lasted so long and became increasingly successful has a lot to do with the way the series was constantly evolving. The basic setup remained but the David Keel, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King eras all have their own flavour. The differences between the Cathy Gale and Emma Peel eras will be startling to those who are only familiar with the Emma Peelers.

Traitor in Zebra

Traitor in Zebra was written by John Gilbert and aired in November 1962. There’s a security leak in a top-secret defence establishment, HMS Zebra, which deals with laser tracking systems. A young sub-lieutenant named Crane has been accused of espionage. Steed and Mrs Gale have the job of finding out if he’s really the traitor. Steed goes undercover as a naval psychiatrist and Mrs Gale as a research chemist.

The local village is a small tight-knit community and the circle of possible suspects is fairly small.

This is early Avengers so it’s a straightforward spy thriller plot without any elements of the surreal or the fantastic. There is some gadgetry but it’s all plausible technology. In fact the technical stuff basically makes sense.

The methods by which the secrets are passed is quite ingenious.

It’s always fun to see William Gaunt (later to star in The Champions). He plays another young officer who is keen to help clear the name of his friend Crane.

It builds to a very satisfying very tense finale in which Steed’s ruthlessness is very much in evidence.

There’s quite a high body count. At this stage The Avengers was still a fairly hard-edged spy series that portrayed espionage as a game in which nice people often get killed, and the good guys can’t afford to be too squeamish about using violence.

The problem with this episode is that John Gilbert’s script is a by-the-numbers spy story and all the plot twists can be seen coming. In fact the viewer more or less knows exactly what’s going on early on, although Steed and Mrs Gale obviously don’t. It’s a competent episode.


Intercrime was scripted by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. It went to air in December 1962. A couple of safe-crackers are murdered on the job, or at least one is murdered and the other left for dead. The survivor, Palmer, provides Steed with the first clues to what’s going on. It’s already suspected that an international crime syndicate is operating in Britain. There’s been a string of major robberies and the MOs don’t fit with the habits of any known local criminals.

Palmer, in a semi-delirious state, lets slip some important information. A key operative in the crime syndicate, Hilda Stern, is about to arrive from Germany. She is arrested and is to be deported but Steed gets a brainwave. Why can’t Mrs Gale impersonate Hilda Stern and infiltrate the organisation. Mrs Gale is not happy about this idea at all but is pressured by Steed into agreeing (typical of the uneasy relationship between them in this season).

As you might expect Cathy’s fears that this was going to be an insanely dangerous idea prove to be well-founded.

The weakness of the script is that Intercrime is so ruthless that inevitably some of its employees are going to turn against it.

This is a solid enough episode with some decent tension (Cathy Gale really does get into a very sticky situation). The plot is routine but the idea of an international crime super-syndicate is a good one. And Intercrime really does seem like a formidable enemy.

It’s interesting to notice how feminine Cathy Gale looks. Skirts and very feminine hairdos. This was not yet the black leather-clad Cathy Gale. This is also a Mrs Gale who uses guns rather than judo to deal with bad guys.

Quite a good episode.

The Big Thinker

The Big Thinker was written by Martin Woodhouse and screened in December 1962. There are problems with a new experimental super-computer called Plato. The problems might be caused by sabotage.

Cathy inveigles her way into Plato’s domain by posing as an anthropologist hoping to use Plato to translate dead languages. Computer whizz-kid Dr Kearns is an obvious suspect. He’s brilliant but erratic, he chases women, he drinks and he gambles. All of which could make him susceptible to pressure to betray the project.

There are some really nice scenes in this one, especially when Cathy’s flat gets broken into. The gambling scene between Mrs Gale and Broster is also excellent.

What’s nice is that the computer is more than just a McGuffin. It plays a central role in the story and also becomes a character. The idea that Plato isn’t just a computer but in fact the whole complex is also rather nifty. It’s not very original but it’s made to work here. You get the impression that Martin Woodhouse has actually put a bit of thought into the computer angle.

Mrs Gale is still very feminine but she has picked up a few unarmed combat skills.

Anthony Booth is terrific as Dr Kearns. He very wisely doesn’t try to soften the character - Kearns is arrogant and obnoxious but he’s vastly entertaining and the fact that nobody likes him plays an important story in the story.


Warlock was written by Doreen Montgomery and went to air in January 1963. This was the episode that was supposed to introduce Mrs Gale but the producers were not satisfied and ordered a lot of reshooting.

In this episode Steed and Mrs Gale tangle with black magic. A physicist suffers what appears to be a stroke, but it isn’t. He then disappears. Steed found him clutching a hex symbol.

International spies (headed by a sinister fellow called Markel) are using black magician Cosmo Gallion to induce scientists to part with vital secrets. Mrs Gale just happens to be an expert in psychic and occult phenomena.

What’s interesting is that Gallion and Markel have totally separate and mutually contradictory agendas. Markel wants a secret rocket fuel formula; Gallion wants occult power.

It ends with Gallion performing a black magic ritual at which it appears that he intends to sacrifice Mrs Gale. The ritual scene tries to be as sexy and you could get away with on British TV in 1963, with a blonde girl dancing in a very skimpy costume. Wearing nothing but very brief panties on her bottom half was pretty startling in 1963. The mixing of voodoo and black magic is amusing and adds some spice. Of course all the occult stuff is a hopeless mishmash worthy of the Sunday papers but this is television and it’s supposed to be silly fun.

You have to remember that in the 60s the British press was continually creating moral panics about witchcraft in modern England.

The relationship between Steed and Mrs Gale is not yet clearly defined. She seems to be very disapproving of Steed at this stage. Steed is very obviously hoping to seduce her.

A well-crafted very enjoyable episode.

Final Thoughts

Four pretty good episodes with Warlock being the best of them.

I've reviewed other Cathy Gale episodes -in these posts - the Cathy Gale era The Mauritius Penny/Mr Teddy Bear and the Cathy Gale era.

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense

Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense was Hammer Films’ last desperate effort to save itself. Their final feature film was To the Devil…a Daughter in 1976. Due to unfortunate financial decisions, failed to make them any money. The British film industry was on its last legs and things were about to get worse, with home video about to arrive and drive the final nail in the coffin. Hammer’s decision to move away from movies into television was actually quite sound.

It’s a decision which should have worked. Hammer House of Horror, made in 1980, was well received and the ratings were healthy. The American network was initially keen on the idea of a second season. Sadly the deal fell through. Without the US network onboard the series was doomed.

Hammer House of Horror did demonstrate that Hammer could do TV horror extremely well. And by the late 70s it was becoming obvious that TV was more suited to Hammer’s style of horror. At the beginning of the 70s Hammer had realised that they needed to vary their formula, and that they needed to add more blood and more sex and more nudity. Their late 1960s efforts were starting to seem a bit tame and a bit stodgy. Hammer responded by making a series of extremely interesting early 70s horror films, with the extra blood, sex and nudity. But Hammer never seemed entirely comfortable with the idea of erotic horror. It just isn’t British. They preferred to leave that sort of thing to the Europeans who were very comfortable indeed with the concept. On TV however they could make the kind of horror that they were comfortable with, a bit bloody but not too much so and with just enough sexiness.

With Hammer House of Horror they hadn’t extricated themselves from their financial mess but the results of the series were still moderately encouraging. In 1984 they tried again, with Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense.

This new series was a co-production with Fox’s TV arm in the US. That caused problems from the start. Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense was too rushed, and to please their American partners the series had to be squeaky clean, bland and inoffensive. If Hammer were uneasy about sex they were to find that American TV preferred to pretend that sex just didn’t exist.

The episodes have a 70-minute running time, presumably at the insistence of the American partners who intended the series to be screened as a mystery movie series. The running times are definitely too long in some cases. Some of the episodes are a bit slower than they should have been, with not quite enough plot to justify the movie-length running times. But it's only a problem with some episodes.

The Americans presumably also insisted on imported American stars. 

Episode Guide

The Sweet Scent of Death was directed by Peter Sasdy. It was written by Brian Clemens so it’s no surprise that it plays out exactly like an episode from his 1970s anthology series Thriller. If you’re a Thriller fan you’ll know what to expect. The plot twists are done reasonably well but some key aspects of the story are a bit too predictable.

Dean Stockwell (an actor I have never been able to warm to) plays an American diplomat in England. Shirley Knight plays his wife Ann. Someone seems to be out to get Ann, although it’s not clear just how serious the threat might be. The prologue suggests to us that there’s a connection to events in New York ten years earlier.

There’s an obvious suspect on whom the police focus their attention but the viewer will immediately realise that there are three or possibly even four alternative suspects.

Peter Sasdy directs the episode competently. It’s an OK episode but just a bit on the bland side.

A Distant Scream
, written by Martin Worth and directed by John Hough, is more interesting. An elderly man is dying. He spent the lest few decades of his life locked up for the murder of his girlfriend years earlier. He has always proclaimed his innocence and has been obsessed with finding the real killer. Close to death, he is transported back in time (presumably by supernatural or paranormal means) and is able to witness the two days leading up to his girlfriend’s murder.

The old man is Michael (David Carradine). At the time of the murder Michael was a freelance photographer spending a holiday at a fishing village with his girlfriend Rosemary (Stephanie Beacham). She’s a married woman with whom he is having an affair.

Michael as an old man is not only able to witness the events leading up to the tragedy, he can interact with the people involved. Rosemary can see him. He can talk to her. At times others can see him and speak with him. Even his younger self sees him at one point.

This of course involves one of those famous time travel paradoxes. If he can interact with people in the past then he should logically be able to change the past. I was rather interested to see whether the scriptwriter (Martin Worth) was aware of the time travel paradox and if so how he was going to deal with it. Or whether he was simply going to ignore it.

The weak link in this episode is David Carradine. He just can’t act. There’s another problem - as a dying old man he looks younger healthier than he does as his younger self. Stephanie Beacham’s performance on the other hand is quite solid.

The Late Nancy Irving, written by David Fisher and directed by Peter Sasdy, concerns a lady golf champion. She has diabetes but it’s always been well controlled. She also has an incredibly rare blood type.

Then she wakes up in hospital. She is told that she crashed her car. She has only vague garbled memories of some kind of car accident. She is assured that her injuries are not all that severe. What worries her is that she feels rather confused. Her mind seems foggy. She is a bit disturbed by the bars on the windows of her private room but she is given a reasonably plausible explanation. The bars date from a time when the clinic treated mental patients who might try to throw themselves from windows. Of course she isn’t being locked in and she’s silly to think such a thing.

Gradually she becomes a little worried. Why hasn’t she heard from her fiancé? Why hasn’t she heard from anyone? Why does she feel so weak? And why are they giving her blood transfusions? And then she sees a story on the TV news and she starts to get the picture.

The main problem here is that while the basic idea is excellent there are not enough plot twists to sustain a 70-minute running time. The excessive length weakens the suspense. Cristina Raines in the lead rôle is also just a little bland. This is an OK episode that could have been a great episode.

Black Carrion was written by Don Houghton and directed by John Hough. Journalist Paul Taylor (Leigh Lawson) is hired to write an article about the Verne Brothers. They were (according to the story) a hugely successful pop duo who disappeared in 1963. Totally disappeared. No-one knows what happened to them. They were never heard from again. To Taylor it’s obvious that this is a promising story. Researcher/photographer Cora Berlaine (Season Hubley) has been assigned to assist him. Cora has a prodigious knowledge of 60s pop music.

Cora is troubled by memories. Disturbing but totally disjointed memories. Are they real memories? She thinks so but of course she can’t be sure.

The search for the Verne Brothers takes Paul and Cora to the village of Briar’s Frome. It was rumoured that the Verne Brothers were going to buy the palatial manor house there. The village is deserted. It’s a ghost town. But weird things are happening in Briar’s Frome, and Cora’s memories are getting more vivid.

The plot is all over the place and there’s some silliness but there are lots of great ideas (and even original ideas) in this episode. And lots of creepy atmosphere. I enjoyed this episode a great deal.

In Possession was written by Michael J. Bird and directed by Val Guest. Frank Daly (Christopher Cazenove) and his wife Sylvia (Carol Lynley) reach their hotel room only to find that it’s already occupied by a woman and an old lady. When they fetch the manager to sort things out the woman and the lady have vanished. Then Frank sees them again by the river, and again they vanish.

Frank and Sylvia start seeing various people in their flat. People who are not there. But they seem very real. Slowly it becomes obvious that in some way Frank and Sylvia are witnessing events that lead to a murder. Is this a shared dream? Or is it something that happened in the past?

Whether you consider this episode to be a haunted house story depends on how broadly you define that term. Whether this counts as a haunted house story doesn’t really matter. It’s a fascinatingly weird and disturbing tale with some real moments of terror and creepiness. An excellent episode.

And the Wall Came Tumbling Down was written by Dennis Spooner and John Peacock and directed by Paul Annett. An old deconsecrated church is being demolished by the Ministry of Defence. There’s a mysterious accident on the site, and we then get a flashback to events in 1949, events involving a coven of devil-worshippers. The devil-worshippers are betrayed by a young man. More than three centuries later another young man has a peculiar interest in this old church.

As you may have guessed the world of the 1980s is about to encounter evil from the 17th century. Maybe not wildly original but it plays out in a very satisfactory manner with plenty of gothic atmosphere and some real creepiness. Caroline Trent (Barbi Benton) works for the government but her real interest is in the occult. She isn’t sure what is going on with that old church but she knows that Dark Forces are at work. The site manager Peter Whiteway (Gareth Hunt) doesn’t believe her, at least not at first.

This one has an interesting cast. There’s Gareth Hunt (best-known for The New Avengers), the wonderful Peter Wyngarde from Department S and Jason King and there’s Barbi Benton, best known as a Playboy model. Hunt is very good, Wyngarde is sinister and charismatic and Barbi Benton is quite OK. It all builds to a satisfying conclusion. A very good episode.

Child's Play was written by Graham Wassell and directed by Val Guest. Mike and Ann Preston are a young couple with a daughter. They wake up in the middle of the night to discover something very odd and disturbing. They have been walled in. Their whole house has been walled in. And it’s getting rather hot. The telephone doesn’t work. The radio doesn’t work. The TV works, but every station has nothing but a station identification logo and it’s the same logo on every channel.

They haven’t noticed it yet but that logo has appeared on all sorts of items in the house. It’s getting hotter and they’re close to giving way to panic.

Mike comes up with various plans to break through the wall but it seems impossible. The two of them also come up with possible explanations. The actual explanation is one they hadn’t considered, and it’s pretty clever. There are some clues but I certainly didn’t guess the solution. This is a nicely scary creepy story, a bit like a good Twilight Zone episode. A very fine episode.

Paint Me a Murder
was written by Jesse Lasky Jr and Pat Silver and directed by Alan Cooke. Painter Luke Lorenz finishes a painting then gets into a rowing boat and heads out to sea. He then smashes through the planking of the boat. His body is not found. Suicide is assumed.

He wasn’t a very successful painter when alive but now that he’s dead his paintings start to fetch huge prices. That’s good news for his widow Sandra (Michelle Phillips). And for art dealer Vincent Rhodes (David Robb).

The major early twist won’t come as much of a surprise but the twists do keep coming. I liked this episode.

Tennis Court was written by Andrew Sinclair and Michael Hastings and directed by Cyril Frankel. This is a haunted tennis court story. A middle-aged woman, Maggie (Hannah Gordon), inherits an old but moderately palatial country house. She has recently married Harry Dowd, a Member of Parliament. In the grounds of the house is an indoor tennis court. Slightly odd things happen on that tennis court. It has some connection to events many years earlier, during the war. A British bomber was shot down. One member of the crew survived. They other did not.

The local vicar, John Bray (Peter Graves), knows something about that wartime incident. At the time he was a Canadian volunteer in the R.A.F. and he was there.

Maggie is becoming increasingly terrified of whatever is in that tennis court.

Not one of my favourite episodes, but entertaining enough.

The Corvini Inheritance was written by David Fisher and directed by Gabrielle Beaumont. This one starts with a young woman, Eva Bailey, encountering a peeping tom. She is unharmed but rather scared. And it starts with a robbery at a fine art auction room.

Frank Lane (David McCallum) is in charge of security at the auction room. He also happens to live in the same building as Eva. Frank offers to help make Eva’s flat more secure. They have dinner together. Frank is divorced and a bit lonely but he’s a nice guy.

Frank has a big security job on. The Corvini inheritance, a fabulous collection of jewels amassed in Italy during the Renaissance by a family of professional assassins, is to be auctioned. It will be in the keeping of the auctioneers for several weeks. It’s an obvious target for professional thieves. The most valuable piece in the collection is a necklace with a grim history. It may be cursed.

There are two plot strands here. Someone seems to be stalking Eva, and there’s the possibility of an attempt to steal the Corvini jewels. I liked this one a lot. There’s some nice ambiguity here.

Czech Mate was written by Jeremy Burnham and directed by John Hough. This is a straightforward Cold War spy thriller but it’s nicely executed with plenty of cynicism and paranoia. Susan George plays an Englishwoman, Vicky Duncan, caught up in a web of deceit and betrayal behind the Iron Curtain. In this story there is no difference whatever between the good guys and the bad guys. People disappear and corpses turn up and Vicky discovers that she can’t trust anyone.

Susan George and Patrick Mower (as her ex-husband) give excellent performances and it’s always nice to see Peter Vaughan in anything. This episode is a bit out of place in this series but it’s entertaining.

Last Video and Testament was written by Roy Russell and Robert Quigley and directed by Peter Sasdy. Victor Frankham (David Langton) owns a vast electronic empire. He has a heart condition and he has a much younger wife, Selena (Deborah Raffin). A much younger wife who may be looking elsewhere for certain pleasures which her husband can no longer provide. Victor’s doctor has been encouraging him to have an operation. An operation which will restore his vitality in the bedroom, which may not be to Selena’s liking.

Victor has a surprise in store for Selena, in the form of a videotape.

This one has quite a clever central idea and it works very nicely.

Final Thoughts

This is an extremely good series, much much better than its reputation would lead you to believe. Highly recommended.

The German Pidax DVD boxed set includes all thirteen episodes, in English with removable German subtitles. The box cover suggests that it only includes eleven episodes but it definitely includes all thirteen. The transfers are perfectly acceptable.